June 5, 2012
Sometimes it’s hard to know when a story starts and when it stops. This observation has held true for me when I write fiction, but in the last several days, I have been mindful of how it relates to the lives we lead each day – whether or not we are conscious of it. The following is a special story – an interweaving of lives in intentional ways. This story includes being visited by 3 different spirits of faith, meeting death, being a vehicle for something bigger and outside of myself, and my decision to take the Camino “off roading.” I return to the States on Tuesday.
A general sketch: Thursday on the walk from Atapuerca to Burgos, Aimee and I discussed 3 strange visitation-like experiences with other pilgrims. Each person approached us and each seemed to represent a different faith. Friday we confronted death. Saturday we continued along the Camino to Hornillos. Sunday, after setting out for Casterjeritz, we were guided back to Burgos. By evening I was eating dinner with old friends, my flight home already booked. But I am getting ahead of myself.
In Atapuerca there were the singing Australians. We had seen these gentleman before, but never really talked. Well okay once we were annoyed that they congratulated us on arriving in Najarra, as if to suggest that there was ever a doubt when they passed us on the trail hours earlier. And we had observed them on the trail the next day singing beautifully in the dark of early morning. But on Thursday we learned that Andrew is a Catholic priest from Melbourne and that Borris is a dear friend and fellow Catholic. Over the course of 3 hours, in the comfort of a shady cafe patio with John Deere tractors and unleashed dogs serving as the occasional distraction, we listened as Andrew spoke eloquently and passionately about Christian faith and Catholicism.
His descriptions of his experiences with the two other (the Camino is the third) great Catholic pilgrimages were beautiful. He studied in Rome for 5 years and had been to the Holy Land twice. Here are some fragments I carry from this conversation: To see the geography of Christ’s life is to ground belief in something tangible, Christian healthcare professionals are healing God through their patients, people of faith are better equipped to handle adversity, such as tragic death. Perhaps most striking was the certainty with which Andrew spoke – so confident is he in his faith, and yet he lacks the arrogance that all to often sits alongside certitude.
Sitting down to eat our home cooked meal that evening, we met another man. Tall, dark, and handsome – maybe 30 or so. We met briefly at check in when he insisted that Aimee and I go ahead of him in line. Aimee commented that he was a real gentleman and yet something about him seemed gruff. Stopping by to offer Aimee wine, we got to know him a bit. He has been living in the States for years, though is originally from Columbia. He lived in Akron, OH until he met a girl and moved to Boston to be with her. After several years they broke up, but he was clearly still torn up about it. After years of working towards her PhD in Biology at Harvard she had decided that she wanted to pursue her medical degree next. No time for him, he felt.
Switching gears he told us about his 16 month old. He lit up…until he mentioned his son’s mother and her family. It hadn’t worked out with the mother – a tall, beautiful blond Brazilian who tricked him. He thought she was American, but he was wrong. She and her family were religious. He didn’t buy it. They think he’s the devil. He said he doesn’t care that they think this. It seemed unlikely to us that he didn’t care. As he wandered back out of the kitchen I couldn’t help but notice that he seemed lost. I later overheard him repeating the story about his ex-love. How many times would he repeat this story until he could rewrite it?
As Aimee and I sat at the communal albergue dinner table, bellies satisfied with our simple meal, a man entered through the screen door and sat down at the bench adjacent us. For the next 30 minutes this man, Mark, recounted to us the set of experiences that led him to the Camino and how extraordinary his journey had been thus far. How he was so happy. “I’m sorry,” he gushed, “I’m just having a spiritual awakening.” Every part of his being – his eyes wide open and yet inwardly focused, the childlike wonderment in his conversation, the quiet energy of his movements – seemed to confirm this fact.
Mark spoke of a spiritual healer from his native Michigan who could see auras and look right past the skull to the brain. After meeting with her for a short while, she concluded that Mark did not know what it felt like to be held in the palm of the world. He moved so fast, carried so much that he was ignoring this critical way of being. Her words struck a chord with him. He determined that instead of a self indulgent trip to Costa Rica to celebrate the completion of his graduate degree in counseling he would depart for the Camino. It was the “best possible decision.”
Mark told us about several instances where he was surprised by the care he received from strangers. There was the Japanese woman in Roncevalles who peeled oranges and bananas with her small hands and then offered them to him for breakfast; the German men who held the last room for him at the albergue in a town he has already left…as if knowing he would have to turn back, tired, from his attempt to make it to the next town; and the hearty laughter he shared with a group of peregrinos with whom he could not communicate in words. “They were loving me and didn’t even know it,” he said. Yes they were, Mark, yes we were. Two nights later, in the bunk next to ours in the large albergue in Burgos, Mark passed away in his sleep. He was 52. But again, I am getting ahead of myself.
On our way from Atapuerca to Burgos we discussed how it seemed that we had been called to listen the day before. How it also seemed that we had been presented with 3 different access points to faith. We noticed these things and kept walking.
We were joined for the second half of our journey by a lovely gentleman about twice our age from Antwerp, Philippe. Philippe had sat next to us at dinner our very first night on the Camino in Roncevalles. We, like many pilgrims, were still learning this community and so clung to our comfortable habits and kept to ourselves. But we were over 150 miles into our journey by now, to say nothing of the internal journey, and things were different.
Philippe invited us to dinner when we parted ways – us for the albergue, he for a hotel. We gladly accepted. He was an interesting person, contemplative in a quiet, thoughtful way. He is easy to talk to. At the albergue we saw the young man from Columbia when we checked in. We waved, but nothing more. Famished, we left the albergue just about as quickly as we came in. On our way out we saw Mark waiting to check in. I touched his shoulder and said, “it is really good to see you.” I meant it. This is the last time that we would see Mark alive. After food and naps and, of course, a trip to the Farmacia, we made our way to the cathedral to meet Philippe for dinner.
We had drinks in the plaza in front of the striking gothic cathedral. While there Aimee and I decided that we needed to take a rest day. Aimee had the brilliant idea that we should forego our beds in the hostel (5 euros each) and check into a hotel that night so that we could sleep in. Philippe called his hotel and got us a room for two nights and we headed off to dinner. Fast forward a couple of hours (filled with delightful conversation and an amazing meal that included not just dessert, but pre-dessert AND post-dessert as well…thanks Philippe!) and the evening is winding down. That’s when I looked at the time and realized it was 10:32. Curfew for the albergue is 10:30. Off we sprint (well Aimee sprints – pregnant ladies may walk the Camino, but a girl has to draw a line somewhere!) to the albergue, but it turns out they don’t joke about curfew on the Camino.
You just have to picture the scene: Aimee banging on the huge, wooden, gothic-styled doors, me waddling towards her in the moonlight of late evening, the Burgos cathedral dominating the backdrop, a man on his balcony looking out and laughing. He has seen this before. So off we trek to the hotel, figuring if you are are going to get locked out of the albergue, not bad to do it on the night that you’ve already got another bed to sleep in. Still, classic Aimee and Sharon.
We were up at 6:45 (which IS sleeping in on the Camino) and at the hostel by 7:15. This albergue is perhaps the largest we’ve stayed in. 6 floors, each housing 30 or so pilgrims. So it seems somehow designed that we were met with the following scene upon arriving to the 5th floor: the room is almost entirely empty, Gabe, a young American we met the previous day, was still there, our beds were covered, and a man in the bed next to us was still asleep. Or so I thought until Gabe turned to me and said, “that’s Mark. He’s dead.” Apparently he had been the loudest snorer in the room most of the night, but hadn’t stirred when all the others were packing up to leave. Gabe had nudged him, trying to wake him up. That’s when he realized that something was wrong. Very wrong.
My mind went blank. Disbelief, shock, searching my memory for a Mark. I looked at the lonely top bunk, a figure still largely obscured in a zip up sleeping bag, a microfiber towel draped over his face. Gabe must have done that, dear boy. I won’t forget that this body’s arms were frozen, elbows bent and set out towards either side of the bed, hands by his face. It looked almost like he was shielding himself from something in those final hours.
It was when I noticed the scarf hanging off the bunk bed – white with bright orange flowers, a happy scarf – that it hit me this was Mark. This was the man who came to us just days before to tell us of his spiritual awakening. Somehow in a zombie-like state, Aimee and I gathered our belongings as the police started to arrive. How odd to be a part of this scene. How grateful to have not been in the beds next to him and yet minds racing, if we had been, was there something we could have done. It was so strange to be there, and yet it seemed planned. Purposeful. Aimee and I knew we were being called to share Mark’s story with his loved ones back in Michigan. Mark died happy, loved – feeling like he was being held in the palm of the world. We wanted to tell his family that. We will share his story.
I write now from a bed in Madrid. My plane leaves for home in 4 hours. Yes, 5 mornings later, my Camino path must take a different turn. There are extraordinary blessings that I take with me along with a total confidence and deep peace that I have made the right decision. My exit from the Camino feels intricately linked to the conversations and events described above. That is because they are linked. When I opened my eyes to the messages being delivered to me, it was very clear how to put one foot in front of the other. It was very clear which direction to head. I will share those special, interwoven moments when I’ve returned stateside and am no longer pounding out 2,000 words on my iPhone.
I will pause with this:
The Camino always provides, and we are all walking the Camino, whether slowly along the earthen pathways in northern Spain or at breakneck speeds in our homelands. It’s a matter of awareness. Of acceptance.
I leave with greater certitude in my conviction that there is nothing stopping you. But that doesn’t mean that a path will continue as you directed. It does mean that, regardless, all things are possible.
I leave with immense gratitude and joy. And the feeling that I too am being held in the palm of the world.
PRESENT DAY REFLECTIONS
I remember sitting in my dark hotel room tapping this post out on my wi-fi enabled iPhone while Aimee slept in the hotel bed next to me. I was so physically exhausted, but even more than that, I was emotionally zapped.
Reading through these jumbled thoughts I’m struck by the clarity that comes through at the end. (Glad it was in there somewhere!) These beliefs continue with me to this day. I understand the importance of mindset. I believe that there is nothing stopping you and am conscious that all things are possible. I am grateful and I am held.
I was joking with someone recently that I’m so glad I went through the Georgetown coaching program before becoming a parent. That program helped me let go of a lot of internal expectations and mindsets, or as a dear friend commented, “it really chilled me out.” The Camino took what I had learned about myself in that program and helped me to embody it. The physical movement of the daily miles tread and the community of pilgrims that surrounded and supported me were great catalysts for this positive change.
5 years after Mark’s death, I still think of him. Aimee and I did send a letter to his family to describe our interactions with him and how happy he was in his final days. (We may have convinced the police to let us copy his address down from his license.) I don’t know if my letter ever made it into the hands of his family. Like with so many things, all we could do was put our good will and thoughts out into the universe and let them go.
It was hard for me to end my own trip on the Camino too. But Mark taught me an important lesson: Our bodies are not simply subjects of our mind. And I had to recognize that my own body was exhausted. And it was also no longer my own. The stakes, I realized were higher for me. In the end, it was little yet-to-be Henrietta who told me it was time to end my own Camino path.
Pilgrims would often ask along the Camino, “why are you doing this?” Or “what’s your purpose?” You can imagine what some of the answers might be. What I experienced is that the purpose you have isn’t necessarily the one you will receive. Sure my coaching program chilled me out, but I was still a future-oriented, goal seeking, driven and ambitious lady. (And let’s be honest, I’m still those things!) But the thing I realized when I decided to end my Camino walk was that the end destination isn’t the most important thing. How we travel along the way is.
We really can’t predict when a particular journey will begin and when it will end. We are however in full ownership and empowerment for how we show up today. And for that I am still, as ever, grateful.
ABOUT THE SERIES
My Pregnant Pilgrimage is a blog series that I’m sharing in the Spring of 2017 during my present-day maternity leave. The arrival of my third little seemed a fitting time to return to these journal reflections from those last months of my life pre-parenthood. Learn more about the inspiration for this series here.